The first sign of trouble was subtle.
During pregame warmups a balloon from the class 4A championship floated out from its hiding place and to the feet of Kuemper senior Anna Niehaus. Niehaus noticed the white balloon and tried to stomp on it to pop the slight nuisance. When she stomped down, though, the balloon absorbed the force of Niehaus’ foot and then sprang back to its shape, refusing to pop.
Niehaus laughed at the slight misfortune. She picked up the balloon and handed it to an assistant coach, who then went on to gift the balloon to a nearby child.
Throughout the rest of the championship Friday match, it became harder and harder to brush off the little things that didn’t seem to go right for the Knights.
“We seemed to get out of system and stayed that way the whole match,” said Kuemper Catholic head coach Keith Stickrod. “Their serving was aggressive. They had a low serve that we’ve struggled with in the past. Usually when we’ve struggled against that we’d get a point here or there and start to pull ourselves out of it.”
Kuemper seemed out of sorts in a 3-0 loss to Mount Vernon in Friday’s class 3A State championship match. Part of what kept them out of sorts was their start of each point which seemed to automatically get the Knights out of system.
Kuemper’s serve receive tried to field the low and fast serves of the Mustangs, something that they had seen throughout the season, but Friday night was different. Once the serve receive fell off, the rest of the team, and the high-powered offense, seemed to lose their usual punch.
“Today we just couldn’t get our game on,” Stickrod said. “If you can’t get that serve receive down then it all starts there. All the little things we weren’t able to do efficiently. Mount Vernon was doing things right, and they were clicking. It just wasn’t our day.”
Kuemper realized how much their championship day wasn’t going towards them after the first set. Mount Vernon seemed to breeze their way to a 25-11 victory.
Some though might not have been too nervous, despite what happened in the first set. After all, the Knights had dropped the first set of last year’s State championship match. They then rebounded to win the next three and take the title.
Even throughout the three-day tournament the Knights had fought back from near double-digit deficits to make matches close.
While the first set was a much bigger deficit than they had faced, the 1-0 Mount Vernon lead didn’t seem insurmountable.
Especially as Kuemper started the second set winning three of the first seven.
But then Mount Vernon went on a three point run, and followed it with a two point run to extend their lead.
The Knights would go on a four point run to pull within one, 11-10 in the middle of the set, and everything seemed to be working as it had throughout the rest of the tournament.
Then came the backbreaker. Mount Vernon galloped off on a five point run late in the second. That extended the Mustang lead 21-14.
“I really don’t know what happened today,” senior Kara Peter, who had earned 61 kills in the previous two State tournament matches, but was limited to nine in the championship said. “I want to say the nerves got to us, and that’s the reason our hits didn’t land in, but I don’t really feel that we were nervous. We were so excited in the locker room. We didn’t seem nervous at all.
“I think maybe we got caught up in trying to be too perfect, and that got to us. We had to not focus on being perfect, but rather playing fundamental. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out for you.”
Mount Vernon fought through the last few points, as Kuemper made a comeback, but it fell short and the Mustangs won the second set 25-18, taking a shocking 2-0 lead in the match.
Again, Kuemper took the first point of the third set, and then went up 2-0. It seemed all had been solved and the Knights might be settling in.
The Knights and Mount Vernon would tie at two, and then the two teams would battle, tying each other at three and four, before the Knights took an 8-6 lead.
Mount Vernon took a timeout.
Then they went on a State championship worthy run.
The next 11 points, which included three ace serves all trotted to the Mount Vernon side of the scoreboard.
“We started to play against ourselves,” Peter said. “I just kept saying, I knew that I got down on myself. But I kept telling the team that we needed to trust ourselves and trust each other. (Mount Vernon) were doing things right, and we really weren’t. That meant that we needed to work harder to overcome what we weren’t doing right. It just didn’t go our way today.”
Throughout the 11-point run by Mount Vernon it seemed that the Knights might be able to break the spell, but each time Mount Vernon scored the point.
Even after the run ended, a serve that went out of bounds, the Mustangs went on a mini two point run. Then they added a final five point run that put the match at 24-12.
“You keep trying to tell the team to stay confident, and that’s what we told them.,” Stickrod said about what he tried to tell the team when things started to go sour. “However, it is tough to stay confident when their side isn’t doing nothing wrong and we aren’t doing anything right.
“Sometimes you just have to shrug your shoulders and hope something goes your way. I thought at times we were going to be able to go on a run and we could pull the match our way. We just couldn’t get the runs we had been able to get the last few matches. We also had been able to pull these kind of matches out throughout the season, but today I think the pressure got to us a little bit.”
Kuemper fought back one last time, but Mount Vernon would finish off the match with a 25-14 win.
For Peter and the rest of the seniors, Friday was a tough pill to swallow. They had done everything right throughout the rest of the season, but for one match, nearly everything went against them. Their aggressive hits were too long. The blocks fell into the net. Even the serves twisted and swerved out of bounds.
“It is hard to play those six girls across the court, play the refs, and then play yourselves as well,” Peter said. “We kept saying that we had each other’s backs, and we did, it just didn’t work tonight. We were trying to do what we could to be fundamental and stay aggressive, and you can’t ask for much more than that. With some of that we get things turned around. We had a lot of aggressive hits, but they went out of bounds. You like to see the aggressiveness, but it just didn’t work for us.”
For the seniors though, the second place trophy is still a badge of honor. In their four year career at Kuemper the seniors went to the State tournament every season, and made the finals for half of their careers.
“Its been awesome to play here for Kuemper,” Peter said. “I finished my career 150-11. I think that shows what Kuemper volleyball is and what the future will be. It shows what our coaches do and everything and how hard everyone works. I remember as a freshman being brought in by the seniors. Now I’m the senior taking in the freshman and helping them out. It has been a lot of fun.”
Stickrod knows the last four years has been something special too. Especially this year, where even though the Knights didn’t quite repeat as champions, the seniors helped deliver his 300th career victory, and his third trip to the State championship game.
“Senior class has been awesome,” Stickrod said. “We had strong seniors in Kara Peter, Mallory Badding and Anna Niehaus who all led us throughout the season. Madison Leonard, Bethany Schleisman and Halle Simmons, who doesn’t play a lot, but those three have helped our team a lot too. I’m very proud of the whole senior class, and proud to be a part of their team.”
The Knights finished the season with a 37-5 overall record. They also were in a three-way tie for the Hawkeye 10 conference title.